President Barack Obama heads to Mexico Thursday and then continues on to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas. Security concerns along the U.S.-Mexico border are expected to top Mr. Obama's discussions with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, while the summit provides an opportunity to reinvigorate America's hemispheric ties and forge a regional response to the global economic downturn. VOA reports, President Obama could also face pressure to end almost 50 years of an often hostile relationship with Cuba.  

Planned discussions on drug-related violence in Mexico

The bloody battles between Mexican security forces and drug cartels engulfing Mexico's states along the U.S. border show no sign of ending soon.  And this drug-related violence is expected to be a focal point of discussions between President Obama and President Calderon in Mexico City Thursday.

"We have a problem of violence and organized crime that we have to tackle," President Calderon said. "Both countries have to do this. Violence and crime are problems not only of Mexico, as President Obama has acknowledged. These are common problems we have to face together."

For his part, President Obama has acknowledged that America's appetite for illegal narcotics fuels the drug trade, and that U.S.-made weapons are finding their way into traffickers' hands.

"We have got to reduce the demand for drugs," President Obama said. "We have got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south [to Mexico]."

The two leaders are expected to discuss ways to strengthen security on both sides of the border, along with bilateral trade issues and immigration concerns. Many of the 12-million plus illegal immigrants in the United States are Mexicans. Mr. Obama has pledged to pursue comprehensive immigration reform but has yet to unveil details.  

Summit of the Americas

From Mexico, Mr. Obama heads to Trinidad to attend the fifth Summit of the Americas -- a gathering of all hemispheric leaders minus Cuba.

Confronting the global economic downturn and preventing it from boosting poverty rates are summit priorities, according U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Tom Shannon. "We have to protect the social gains that we have made in this hemisphere over the past decade, and ensure that the economic recovery of all the countries in the hemisphere does not come at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society," he said.

Cuba restrictions lifted

But it is the issue of Cuba and the decades-old standoff with the U.S. that may generate news at the summit.  

In advance of the trip, President Obama lifted U.S. restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba that were imposed during the Bush administration, though he did not end the U.S. embargo.

Cuba's absence at these hemispheric gatherings also may be raised.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has decried Cuba's exclusion.

Jeffrey Davidow, President Obama's special advisor for the summit, responds this way to the issue: "It [the summit] continues to be a celebration of the profound change in this hemisphere as compared to many periods in the past when the hemisphere was marked by undemocratic governments. Cuba was not at the first summit; it remains an undemocratic state. The United States still hopes to see change in Cuba," he said.

The summit will take place as public opinion polls in Latin America show far higher approval ratings for President Obama than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva says, "President Obama has a historic opportunity to improve the [U.S.] relationship with Latin America," he said.

The consensus view in the Americas is that the United States turned its gaze away from hemispheric concerns after the attacks of September 11, 2001, focusing instead on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and against global terrorism.

Observers say the upcoming four-day trip will give Mr. Obama a chance to change that perception.